The Israeli environmental activist seeking to save the world

Dr. Richard H. Schwartz is on a mission. He devotes a major part of his time writing, speaking, and teaching about the benefits of plant-based diets.

 Dr. Richard H. Schwartz prepares for his annual Tu Bishvat seder. (photo credit: RICHARD SCHWARTZ)
Dr. Richard H. Schwartz prepares for his annual Tu Bishvat seder.
(photo credit: RICHARD SCHWARTZ)

Dr. Richard H. Schwartz is on a mission. Along with most scientists, he is convinced that our planet is facing environmental disasters, the most urgent of which is the impending climate catastrophe. And he believes that he has a plan to help avert them.

To increase awareness of the threats and potential solutions, he has written five books, hundreds of articles, and many more letters to editors; co-produced a one-hour, award-winning documentary; given many live talks and radio and podcast interviews; and hosted many Zoom events.

“My commitment and activism started in the mid-1970s, when I was teaching mathematics at the College of Staten Island in New York City,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.

One of the courses he taught was basic mathematics, required of all liberal arts majors. Most of the students, he found, were inadequately prepared and poorly motivated since mathematics was not important for their career choices.

 RICHARD Schwartz is proud to be an Orthodox Jewish vegan living in Israel. (credit: RICHARD SCHWARTZ) RICHARD Schwartz is proud to be an Orthodox Jewish vegan living in Israel. (credit: RICHARD SCHWARTZ)

“To help motivate them, I created and offered a course called Mathematics and the Environment. I used basic mathematical concepts and problems to explore environmental and other societal issues.”

Because there was no text available for this novel course, he wrote Mathematics and Global Survival, published in 1979 and updated every few years to reflect changing world conditions, until he retired from full-time teaching in 1999.

It was the Mathematics and the Environment course that set Schwartz on his road toward vegetarianism. Until 1978, he says, he was a typical American meat-eater. His mother would be sure to prepare his favorite pot roast whenever he came to visit with his wife and children.

Yet, he not only became a vegetarian and later a vegan; he now devotes a major part of his time writing, speaking, and teaching about the benefits of plant-based diets. What caused this major change?

“While reviewing material on world hunger for my Mathematics and the Environment course, I became aware of the tremendous waste of grain that results from the production of meat,” Schwartz explains. “About 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States and about 40 percent of the grain produced worldwide is fed to animals destined for slaughter. Meanwhile, millions of people – many of them children – die of hunger and its effects annually and about 10% of the world’s people are chronically malnourished. In response, I often led class discussions on the possibility of reducing meat consumption as a way of helping hungry people.”

As he read about the many health benefits of vegetarianism and about the horrible conditions for animals raised on factory farms, he was increasingly attracted to the vegetarian way of life. He was helped by a course called Judaism and Vegetarianism at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan taught by Jonathan Wolf, founder and first president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, which provided valuable information and insights.

“After becoming a vegetarian in 1978, I began exploring the connections between vegetarianism and Judaism,” says Schwartz. “I learned that the first biblical dietary regimen (Genesis 1:29) was strictly vegetarian, and that the future age of world peace and harmony, the Messianic period, will also be a vegetarian time, based on the prophecy of Isaiah (11:6-9), that ‘the wolf shall dwell with the lamb... the lion shall eat straw, like the ox... and no one shall hurt nor destroy on all of God’s holy mountain.’

“I became convinced that the basic Jewish mandates to preserve our health, be kind to animals, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, share with hungry people, and seek and pursue peace all point to vegetarianism, and more so veganism, as the ideal diet for Jews,” he says.

To get this message out to a wider audience, he wrote Judaism and Vegetarianism, first published in 1982, and revised and expanded in 1988 and 2001. Many consider this to be the classical book on the subject.

“I increasingly became convinced that moving toward, or even better, adopting, a vegan diet is a Jewish and societal imperative, essential to efforts to solve many of the leading environmental, societal, and political challenges facing humanity,” he says. “As a Jew, I have found veganism spiritually uplifting, because it helps to recall the peaceful, nonviolent, vegan ‘peaceable kingdom’ envisioned by the biblical prophets.”

The cover story of the August 9, 2021, issue of The Jerusalem Report was Schwartz’s “Why Jews should be vegans.” In the next issue, his letter invited rabbis and other Jewish scholars to engage in a respectful dialogue/debate on “Should Jews be vegans, or at least vegetarians?”

“I believe this would produce a kiddush hashem, a sanctification of God’s Name, by showing the relevance of eternal Jewish teachings to current issues,” he explains. “Believing that shifts to vegetarianism and veganism are only part of what is needed to create a better, environmentally sustainable world, I next wrote Judaism and Global Survival, published in 1984 and 2002. It discusses how Jewish teachings on compassion, justice, peace, environmental sustainability, reducing hunger, conserving natural resources, and much more can be applied to improve the world.”

His next book, published in 2013 and 2016, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, argues that Jews should play leading roles in efforts to avert a climate catastrophe and other potential environmental disasters, fulfilling the Jewish mandate to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).

Schwartz’s latest book, Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism, is the culmination of over 40 years of activism.

“Because climate change and other environmental threats are so ominous, I am offering the book at no charge as a PDF, hoping that the book will inspire people to adopt a plant-based diet, and will encourage many respectful dialogues that will help reduce current threats,” he says.

More than 250 articles and 25 podcasts by Schwartz are available at to reinforce the messages in his books. They include articles relating Shabbat and all the Jewish holidays to vegetarianism and veganism. He has many additional articles at his Jewcology and Times of Israel blogs.

Along with multi-award-winning producer Lionel Friedberg, Schwartz was associate producer of the documentary A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World, which dramatically reinforces the ideas in his books.

“Richard addresses issues that will help humanity face a future too ghastly to contemplate if we do not immediately do something to curb the coming cataclysm,” said Friedberg.

Freely available online, the documentary has been acclaimed by people of all faiths. He and others have distributed 40,000 complimentary copies of the DVD to make as strong an impact as possible.

Schwartz served as president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America from 2002 to 2012, producing frequent email newsletters to keep members informed. At 87, he is president emeritus and a board member of the group, which is now called Jewish Veg. He also is president of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians.

“Dr. Schwartz is rightfully known as the godfather of Jewish vegetarianism and veganism,” says Jeffrey Spitz Cohan, executive director of Jewish Veg. “His seminal book, Judaism and Vegetarianism, is the most authoritative book on the subject. And after writing the book, he worked tirelessly – as an unpaid volunteer – to sustain the organization that blossomed into Jewish Veg.”

Schwartz was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the North American Vegetarian Society in 2005. He served for several years as director of Veg Climate Alliance, a group whose message is that a major shift to plant-based diets is essential to avert a climate catastrophe.

“Through this and other efforts, I work with people of other religions to increase awareness of the beauty and power of Jewish and other religions’ teachings on current issues,” he says.

Since making aliyah with his wife, Loretta, in August 2016, Schwartz has been active in Israel in efforts to increase awareness of how applying Jewish values can help reduce current threats.

He often speaks at the Protea Hills retirement village in Shoresh, where he lives, and he has led several Tu Bishvat seders there, continuing a tradition he started on Staten Island. His letters and op-eds often appear in The Jerusalem Post.

“One of my current projects is to restore, along with other activists, the ancient New Year for Animals on Rosh Hodesh Elul – originally a holiday for tithing animals for sacrifices – and to transform it into a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s compassionate teachings on animals and how far current realities are from these teachings,” he says.

He has compiled lists of Jewish organizations, rabbis, and Jewish leaders who support this initiative. On the most recent Rosh Hodesh Elul, he organized three Zoom events to promote this idea.

“I am also working on a 20th-anniversary edition of my 2002 book, Judaism and Global Survival, and many articles, and I’ve started a podcast through which I plan to interview leading vegetarians and vegans, animal rights activists, environmental activists, and other influential people.”

However, Schwartz’s main current focus is on the looming climate catastrophe, and he enumerates the reasons why he is so concerned.

“Recent severe climate events have occurred at a time when the global temperature has risen about 1.1 degrees Celsius (about two degrees Fahrenheit) since the start of the industrial revolution,” he says. “Climate experts project that this increase will be at least three degrees Celsius by the end of this century, triggering far worse climate events. Climate experts fear that self-reinforcing positive feedback loops (vicious cycles) could result in an irreversible tipping point when climate spins out of control, with catastrophic results. Military experts are warning that there will likely be tens of millions of desperate refugees fleeing from severe heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, and other climate events. These disasters will make instability, terrorism, and war far more likely.”

He said Israel is especially threatened by climate change because the Middle East is becoming hotter and drier faster than most areas, increasing the potential for future violence.

“The coastal plain, where most of Israel’s population and infrastructure are located, could be inundated by a rising Mediterranean Sea,” he warns.

Schwartz notes that in 2006, the UN Food and Agriculture organization’s report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” concluded that animal-based agriculture emitted more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than all the world’s transportation systems combined.

In a cover story published in World Watch magazine in 2009 entitled Livestock and Climate Change, two environmentalists associated with the World Bank estimated that the livestock sector is responsible for at least 51% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

“Based on the above and other analyses, I believe that there is now only one way to avert a climate catastrophe, and that is through a societal shift toward vegan diets.”

He argues that such a shift has a major advantage over a move toward renewable energy, more efficient cars, and other positive changes.

“It is the only approach that not only significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions, because there would be far less cows and other farmed animals emitting methane, a very potent greenhouse gas with up to 120 times the ability to heat up the planet as C02 per unit weight,” Schwartz said. “It also has the potential of dramatically reducing C02 presently in the atmosphere by permitting reforestation of the over a third of the world’s ice-free land that is currently being used for grazing and raising feed crops for animals. This could reduce the current 420 parts per million of Co2 in the atmosphere to a much safer level below 350 ppm, a threshold value according to climate experts.”

Schwartz says it is much easier to be a vegan today than when he first set out on this path, thanks to the abundance of plant-based substitutes for meat and other animal products. “Many have the appearance, texture and taste so similar to those of the animal products that even long-time meat-eaters can’t tell the difference,” he says.

More importantly, “I believe that animal-based diets and agriculture seriously contribute to climate change and other environmental threats, heart disease, cancer, and other life-threatening diseases, the very inefficient use of land, water, energy, and other natural resources, widespread hunger, and the massive mistreatment of animals, seriously violating many basic Jewish teachings. This should impel Jews to become vegans, or at least to sharply reduce their consumption of meat and other animal products.”

Rabbi David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland and the American Jewish Committee’s director of International Interreligious Affairs, called Richard Schwartz “a pioneer in the Jewish engagement to save our planet, to protect Creation, and to adopt a lifestyle in consonance with the highest ethical Jewish values and teachings. His work and leadership have been and continue to be nothing less than a sanctification of the Divine name in the world.”

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of the Shalom Institute, says, “No one has been more creative, committed, and consistent than Richard Schwartz in arguing for a Judaism that can address in all its depth the world crises that all humanity and all the life-forms of our planet face today.”

Lewis Regenstein, author of Replenish the Earth and many other books on wildlife and the environment, believes Schwartz’s work has “truly changed the world. He is considered the world’s foremost authority on the teachings of Judaism on protecting animals and nature, and through his writings, seminars, speeches, and Zoom meetings, has taught a couple of generations now about the remarkably strong commandments and teachings of our faith forbidding cruelty to animals and wanton destruction of the natural environment.”

Schwartz says that the growth of his family in Israel – four grandchildren recently got married, four great-grandchildren were born and one more is expected – has inspired him to work even harder “to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.”  ■